CMT’s ‘Sun Records’ aims to show a time when rock ‘n’ roll was ‘cons and hustles’
For a series immersed in events that happened upward of 70 years ago, CMT’s new drama “Sun Records” felt timely to star Chad Michael Murray.
While on location in Memphis, Tenn., the musical fertile crescent where rock ’n’ roll began at Sam Phillips’ studio on the corner of Marshall and Union avenues, Murray was staying near the city’s double-arched Hernando de Soto Bridge — known to locals as “the M bridge” — during his last days of shooting the series, which begins an eight-episode run on Thursday at 10 p.m.
One night in the summer of 2016, the racial divide that made Phillips’ colorblind approach to recording the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and “Rocket 88” creators Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner so revolutionary was reflected back at Murray as a Black Lives Matter march closed down the bridge.
“We’re shooting a show [set] in a very heated, awful time when discrimination was just rampant between black and white, and now here I am, sitting in our apartment under the M bridge and there’s protests going on,” said Murray, the former star of “One Tree Hill” who portrays Phillips with a smooth-talking, occasionally self-destructive energy.
“Music is the Band-Aid, music is what heals you, and that’s what’s beautiful about it. We haven’t changed a bit,” he added.
It’s that transcendent power that long ago cast a spell on the series’ producer Leslie Greif, who grew up around music (his father managed Motown songwriter-producer Lamont Dozier). After discussions with CMT about developing a scripted series, Greif took in the Sun Records-era jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” and was hooked.
But where the stage production focuses on a legendary one-night jam session among foundational rock and roll artists Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, Greif was inspired “to tell the story of the birth of rock ’n’ roll.”
“How one man came to Memphis, Sam Phillips, and changed it and made it all happen,” Greif said.
Far from a straightforward stage-to-screen adaptation, “Sun Records” lingers on the origins of some of the most recognizable, near-mythic artists America has produced — along with the racism ingrained in the culture of their time. In one instance, Ike Turner and his band are confronted by bigots just for standing outside what was then called the Memphis Recording Service before Phillips ushers them inside.
Elsewhere, well before Lewis sets his piano on fire, we see the babyfaced “Killer” causing trouble in church with his cousin (and future televangelist) Jimmy Swaggart.
Though known as “The Man in Black,” Cash spends the first half of the series in uniform while stationed in Germany, and Presley is far from his kingdom as a lovesick teenager trying to charm one of his classmates while falling under the spell of gospel in black churches.
“Everybody’s heard of Sun Records and ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ but they didn’t know the story,” said Greif, who drew a comparison to his explorations of familiar, near-folkloric topics in his previous miniseries, “Hatfields & McCoys” and the Alamo of “Texas Rising.” “It’s just very thrilling to be able to sometimes distill something down and say, ‘Let’s tell a story about four teenagers.’”
But the familiarity of the key figures in “Sun Records” did pose a challenge with casting, particularly for its most famous character. “Sam Phillips, nobody has any idea” what he looks like, Greif said. “But Elvis is so iconic, how do you do Elvis?”
The answer was found in Drake Milligan.
Though only 18 years old, the Texas-born Milligan has been under the spell of Presley for roughly 10 years since seeing an impersonator’s act. He performed tribute shows to Presley while a teenager, and in a swept back pompadour and the ’50s-era backdrop of “Sun Records” — directed with a cinematic flourish by Roland Joffé (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”) — Milligan is a dead-ringer for a young Presley.
“I focus more on representing him as a real person,” said Milligan, who credited Joffé with helping him get comfortable in his biggest role. “It was such a pivotal time in Elvis’ life, he was just a poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., that’s all he really was. He had the same feelings as everybody.”
For 26-year-old Kevin Fonteyne, capturing Cash presented its own challenges. “Obviously you’ve got to get the voice right,” said Fonteyne, who admitted the series marks his first time singing for a role since high school. “You can’t be Johnny Cash until you can go [dips his voice] ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’” he said, referencing Cash’s onstage greeting on the 1968 live album “At Folsom Prison” and elsewhere.
“Sun Records” follows Cash as he leaves rural Arkansas to join the Air Force. Depicting Cash awkwardly stumbling around on roller skates at one point, it’s a moment that stands in contrast with the dignified performing presence Cash would become. “I didn’t want to just play the idea of Johnny,” said Fonteyne.
While the series’ young cast in some ways mirrors the point in the careers for each of their subjects, Billy Gardell of “Mike & Molly” constitutes an elder showbiz veteran not unlike his character, Colonel Parker. Though Elvis’ longtime manager is often seen as a conniving and mysterious figure, Gardell found something to admire.
“I see him as part villain, part genius,” said Gardell of Parker, who at one point was taking 50% of Elvis’ earnings, a detail Gardell concedes “was just filthy.”
But, he added, “all the bands nowadays that have riders in their contracts should bow down and thank this guy because without him demanding all that stuff they wouldn’t have any of it. In that way he was ahead of his time.”
From both the social and musical standpoint, that timelessness also gave Greif the hope “Sun Records” would offer a new generation a look at rock ’n’ roll when it was still dangerous.
“I thought well maybe, for the kids ... they’re used to going now to Stagecoach or Coachella — it’s very nice, it’s all orderly,” Greif said. “I figured, let me show the people what it was like when it was mud and crazy and cons and hustles and everyone got paid in cash.”
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.
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